Reviewby Theron Martin, Jul 22nd 2014
Knights of Sidonia
In a distant future where mankind has fled a destroyed Earth, Nagate Tanikaze has been raised apart from other humans by his grandfather, and thus has always dwelled in the bowels of a massive ship, where he trains regularly in an abandoned but still functional mecha simulator. After his grandfather's death a shortage of food eventually forces him to the surface, where he discovers a strange reality: a highly regimented society built in the interior of an asteroid-based ship, one where people his aged are commonly trained to be garde (mecha) pilots against the possible reappearance of the Gauna, a betentacled alien foe which Sidonia (the name of the ship) has not encountered in a century but which has devastated the ship and populace in past encounters. One of Sidonia's leaders, suspecting the truth about Nagate's origin, has him integrated into Sidonia's training academy for its defense force, where he quickly proves unable to handle the newest-model garde but proves quite adept with an older one once used by a renowned hero. The timing couldn't be better for Sidonia, as when a resource-gathering mission leads to a Gauna contact, Nagate will prove instrumental in helping Sidonia (which, as far as they know, may be the last remaining remnant of humanity) to survive. But Sidonia also has its share of deeply-buried secrets, and not everyone is necessarily happy to see Nagate succeed.
The first season of Knights of Sidonia, an adaptation of a manga by Tsutomu Nihei (the creator of Blame! and Biomega), is something of a landmark in the anime market in the West, as it is the first anime series that Netflix has pre-emptively and exclusively licensed for streaming as a Netflix Original Series. That it was not simulcast, but rather released one season later, likely has to do with its stream on Netflix making all episodes available at once and having both Spanish and English dub options (as well as both regular and closed-captioned subtitle options) in addition to the standard subtitled Japanese form. Is this a one-shot arrangement or the beginning of a new trend? The latter seems more likely, as production studio POLYGON PICTURES has done some prominent works aimed primarily at Western audiences (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Transformers Prime, Tron: Uprising) and so may have an established relationship already with Netflix. Either way, though, it is a development which could have some interesting implications for the future.
Through the first 12 episodes of the series, the plot is fairly standard mecha fare: a gifted pilot rises from obscurity to be the shining star of the defense forces of one of the last bastions of humanity against marauding aliens who are normally impossible to communicate with. Naturally his success rubs an ambitious fellow pilot the wrong way, leading to an accident with nasty consequences, and naturally he attracts a fair amount of romantic attention in the process. People in high places know secrets concerning him and truths kept from the general public. Naturally the alien threat level steadily increases as the series progresses, with new technological gimmicks developed to offset it. And naturally a certain portion of the population is discontent with how things are run. The influence of titles from franchises like Macross, Evangelion and a handful of other mecha stand-bys is quite clear. Not helping is that few of the characters stand out from each other either in appearance or personality, which can result in difficulty keeping some important characters straight.
For all that the series' story elements are assembled from numerous previous mecha titles, though, its setting is what makes it stand out. The population of Sidonia has been bio-engineered to be capable of photosynthesis, which means that its citizens only actually have to eat once a week. Cloning, including forced-growth methods, seems to be a standard practice, to the point that reproduction is implied to be entirely asexual. (We learn later in the series that this was likely done to quickly expand a population devastated by an earlier Gauna attack, resulting in population growth from a mere 400 or so to more than 500,000 in just a century.) One character is even an anthropomorphic bear, though exactly why is never explained; another character is a new gender capable of being male or female depending on the partner. The higher-ups apparently secretly have the technology to make humans immortal, resulting in certain characters being hundreds of years old (perhaps the reason why the female captain always wears a mask is to conceal that fact?), but tightly control its application and knowledge of its existence for fear of the consequences. An upper level contains a sea with various aquatic life, while buildings and residences are stacked in great shafts. Because maneuvering the massive colony quickly can throw off the artificial gravity, all locations are equipped with rails and all citizens, soldiers, and trainees wear special gravity shoes and belt clips for situations where emergency maneuvering must be done – for as we get to see, that always brings heavy damage and casualties. Just about everything (including bodies) is reprocessed. Basic principles of physics apply heavily in spatial maneuvering, and mecha traveling long distances in space unite in clusters to gain a collective speed and range boost. These and a wealth of other small details, and the way that they are gradually introduced rather than info-dumped, save the series from mediocrity.
The look of the series also makes it distinctive, as 3D CG artistry is ambitiously applied to the entire series. The results include action scenes rife with mind-bogglingly complex debris fields and disintegration scenes, energetically-flowing mecha movements, and ambitious lip-synching when characters are not wearing face-concealing masks (and some do). Action scenes will occasionally use The Matrix-like slowdowns to highlight its flashiest maneuvers, but they take few traditional shortcuts. The visual effect does not handle changing facial expressions terribly well (in fact, faces, with few exceptions, are ill-defined) and can sometimes be a little stiff in character movements, but the trade-off is an impressive amount of attention to detail in things like wear patterns on combat suits and other equipment, including buildings and mecha; no occurrences of the Shiny Mecha Syndrome (i.e., the tendency of CG-animated mecha and vehicles to resist any kind of scuffing, scraping, or other signs of wear despite intense use) will be found here! Color schemes are typically subdued, with almost no bright colors used. Character designs lean a bit more towards specifically Japanese looks than normal and give most female characters prominent but not outrageous busts, while male characters are invariably lean and athletic. The one “new gender” character is conspicuously identifiable by wearing shorts instead of pants or a skirt and has a definitively androgynous look. Some scenes can get fairly graphic, especially one displaying the inside effects of an emergency maneuver, but beyond occasionally lingering the camera on a female character's chest, fan service is limited to a couple of locker room scenes and a handful of other scenes where female characters are shown photosynthesizing while naked. While these show no actual frontal nudity, they combine with the graphic content to give the series a TV-MA rating.
The visuals get hefty support from a grand, cinematic-styled musical score. While it can come across too heavily at times, it never leaves action scenes short for intensity. Opener “Sidonia” by Angela mixes some elements of military marches into what is otherwise a fast-tempo synthesized dance beat, creating a catchy sound with a lot of repeat listen value. Closer “Tenohira –Show-“ by Eri Kitamura (who also voices the Honoka Series girls – i.e., the 11 identical pink-haired girls) is a suiting hard rock song which is no slouch, either.
Though a Spanish dub was available, it was not reviewed. The English cast features several new names but is anchored by well-established veterans, including Johnny Yong Bosch as Nagate, Wendee Lee as Captain Kobayashi, and Todd Haberkorn as Nagate's rival Norio Kunato. Casting choices are good and for the most part the actors provide a smooth and natural-sounding dub, though in a few places they conspicuously pause as if waiting for the subtitles to catch up. Given that this happens with even the most experienced voice actors, it suggests timing flaws at the directorial level and/or a hurried dub production in general.
The story being told by the series is far from complete at the end; in fact, the stopping point is a rough one which resolves an immediate crisis but leaves a lot of plot threads dangling. Thankfully a second season has already been green-lit, with the first two episodes set to debut in November and the series then presumably airing in the Winter 2015 season. While the plot and characters may not be especially compelling or fresh, the action, visuals, and setting details are sharp enough to keep viewers coming back.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Impressive attention to fine visual detail, inventive setting details, action scenes.
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